Category Archives: Other waterways

Tours will help people understand Elwha restoration

Guided tours of the empty reservoir behind Elwha Dam near Port Angeles will be offered on Saturdays beginning Aug. 3 and continuing through Sept. 7.

The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.
The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.
Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

Rangers from Olympic National Park will lead the tours and talk about the massive dam-removal project. This will be a wonderful service for visitors who wish to get up close and understand one of the largest ecosystem-restoration projects in the world.

Instead of wandering aimlessly in what many would consider a wasteland, visitors will gain an appreciation for the shifting and eroding sediments and understand how the gravel is moving as the river reclaims its channel. They will view newly established vegetation and hear what it takes to restore native species to the area. They will stand alongside the mighty stumps of old-growth trees buried within the lakebed until the sediments began washing away.

The hour-long walks will begin at 1 p.m., leaving from the boat launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road. Turn off Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River Bridge. Explorers should wear boots or sturdy walking shoes and plan for windy conditions with no shade. For information, contact the Elwha Ranger Station, (360) 452-9191.

Earlier this year, I wrote a story for visitors interested in the Elwha restoration. Given that the tours of Lake Aldwell will last about an hour, you may wish to visit some of the other viewpoints while you’re there. See “Visiting the Elwha: Explore a River Transformed.” Also, check out a few of my observations in Water Ways, April 30, 2013.

Meanwhile, officials at Olympic National Park posted a new entry to the Dam Removal Blog yesterday. It describes how aerial surveys are being used to measure changes in the sediments during this period of low flows on the river. The entry also discusses the revegetation effort, pointing out that sediments along the river are drying out faster this year than last.

Elwha River visitors guide

Here’s my guide for visiting the Elwha area

When my editor, Kim Rubenstein, asked me to write a story for people who wish to check out the Elwha River restoration, it seemed like a good idea. After playing the role of tourist for a day, I’m convinced that many visitors will have a good time learning about this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Looking upstream where the Elwha River flows into an empty Lake Mills, the upper reservoir. Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt
Looking upstream where the Elwha River flows into an empty Lake Mills, the upper reservoir. / Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

I wrote a story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun that describes where you can go to see the river and various features of the restoration project. The area map we created for the newspaper can be downloaded and taken with you. Click here for map (PDF 438 kb).

Learning about the natural features of the Elwha River watershed is an important part of the experience. Before you leave home, I recommend that you view a series of “webisodes” on the Olympic National Park website. I’m told these videos by Wings Over Watersheds are a sampling of what will eventually become a longer video production.

A more complete story about the Elwha Restoration Project, including a history of the two dams, has been captured in a new book by Seattle Times reporter Linda Mapes. I wrote a review of her book, “Elwha: A River Reborn,” to accompany my visitor’s guide to the area.

I think kids and adults alike will enjoy playing around with a model of Glines Canyon at Feiro Marine Life Center, where one can pull out the dam and watch the sediment move downstream.

Randall Walz, director of education and volunteers at the center, told me about misconceptions that some people have. Many believe that the sediment in the Elwha moved downstream and piled up behind the dams, he said. Instead, most of the sediment was dropped off in the upper portion of the two reservoirs, where the water slowed down as it entered the lakes.

The restoration work included digging a pilot channel through the Lake Mills delta to form a new channel and guide the river through the trapped sediment. The goal is not to move the sediment downstream as quickly as possible, Walz said, but rather to stabilize the deltas and allow them to erode over a longer period of time.

If you want to see change, be sure to visit the mouth of the Elwha River, which you reach from a dike trail at the end of Place Road. Wherever you see sand, that’s change, because there was no sand here before, said Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute.

The sandy habitat will better support the migration of juvenile salmon and provide spawning areas for sandlance, a forage fish. The decline of the rocky habitat could mean the end of tall kelp, but researchers hope the new sandy habitat will support the growth of eelgrass and a burgeoning community of diverse plants and animals. Check out the story I wrote in March, following a conference on the nearshore changes taking place.

I have to say there’s not a lot of excitement to behold in the upper portions of the two reservoirs unless you remember what it was like when the lakes were in place or can visualize the enormity of the change. The river now carves its way through a dry lake bed, where one can see large old-growth stumps, which were either under water or buried by sediment. Plants are coming back, some placed there by restoration workers, others by natural processes.

With or without the dams, one can enjoy the escape into this natural area, particularly as one moves into the higher trails in Olympic National Park. Be sure to take time to enjoy the natural surroundings, even if you need to cut out parts of your planned trip.

If you want to observe the changes over time, I suggest you find a vantage point and take a picture during your visit. When you return the next time, take another picture for comparison. The heavy gravel and silt seems fairly inhospitable at the moment. But if you return again and again, I expect you’ll be amazed at the transformation taking place over the next few years.

Elwha River transformation comes swiftly

Changes are coming rapidly to the Elwha River, as massive amounts of sediment shift around in the river channel and flow out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Phoebe Tyson, a Student Conservation Association intern, joins in planting efforts in the former Lake Mills to help restore a natural forest. Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park
Phoebe Tyson, a Student Conservation Association intern, joins in planting efforts in the former Lake Mills to help restore a natural forest. / Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park

Over the past few months, researchers have documented the formation of new beaches and the growth of the delta at the mouth of the Elwha. I described these latest changes in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The new information came out of an annual workshop of the Elwha Nearshore Consortium, which has a special interest in the river, especially its effects on the coastal reaches along the strait.

It’s exciting to hear about the transformation of the river, and I would like to congratulate the scientists for the monitoring work that allows us to talk about “before” and “after” dam removal — although the “after” part will be an ongoing story for decades. Many research organizations are involved in the Elwha, and I hope their funding holds out to tell a more complete story from a scientific perspective.

Meanwhile, many writers, photographers and videographers are telling their own stories about the restoration in various ways, and new books and documentaries are on the way. I’ve talked about some of these in the past and will continue to do so as new works are released.

The human connections to the river, particularly those of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, have been widely recognized as an integral part of the restoration story. Many Klallam elders have been gracious in sharing their culture and traditions.

Although the Elwha Dam removal is far from the only restoration effort taking place in Western Washington, it may be the one place where nature is working at an extraordinary pace to put things back the way they were.

Blasts punctuate anniversary of Elwha Dam project

The folks at Olympic National Park who keep us informed about the Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration Project could not have described it better: “It has been an explosive week at Glines Canyon Dam,” they said in their “Dam Removal Blog.”

Blasting this week at Glines Canyon Dam. Click on image to start video.
Video courtesy of Olympic National Park

The “salmon window,” designed to protect migrating fish, has now closed, allowing work in the river to begin again. This week, four big blasts blew out large sections of the dam on Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, as the reservoir level dropped from 489 to 476 feet, according to the blog. Click on the image to start the video of the blasting.

After an upcoming blast on Sunday, a 14-day waiting period will begin to allow the river to erode laterally.

The remote cameras at both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams are useful for observing environmental and structural changes in the areas around the two dams. An unexpected use came into play Thursday, when an average person looking at the Elwha Dam webcam noticed a fire burning at the edge of the picture.

Someone noticed a fire on the Elwha Dam webcam and was able to call in firefighters before it got out of hand.
Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park

Firefighters from Clallam County, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and Olympic National Park were able to extinguish the blaze before it could burn more than half an acre. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Read the news release about fire danger in the national park.

Click on image for video showing the first year of Elwha River restoration work.
Video courtesy of Olympic National Park

It’s worth noting that we have just passed the first anniversary of the start of dam removal. The Elwha Dam is gone and most site work is complete. Glines Canyon Dam is about 60 percent removed. And salmon have been observed swimming upstream of the Elwha Dam. Click on the image (lower right) to start the video, which shows what has happened over the past year.

Elwha Dam: Keeping an eye on sediment flows

Removal of the Elwha Dam and drawdown of Lake Aldwell behind it have gone faster than originally planned, and now the story of the Elwha River restoration becomes a story of erosion. Experts are watching the sediment movement very closely.

Taken today, this photo shows the sediment once impounded by the Elwha Dam but now free to move. The drawdown is on hold to allow the river to redistribute the sediment.
Elwha Dam cam, Natonal Park Service

The Elwha Dam has been entirely removed down to the river bed (see photos below), and the river is now flowing in its original channel, where it will remain. The river is being held back mainly by a “check dam” of boulders. At the moment, the drawdown has been halted at 133 feet elevation for a scheduled two-week holding period.

Andy Ritchie, restoration project hydrologist with Olympic National Park, says the pause in drawdown will allow the river to snake around to redistribute the sediment more evenly across the valley. The final target elevation for the river bed is 100 feet.

Drawdown of Lake Mills, behind the upper Glines Canyon Dam, also is on hold at the moment. Even more sediment is trapped behind that dam. While project managers have largely lost control over the movement of sediment behind the lower dam, the upper dam remains intact enough to control migration of sediment from farther up the canyon.

As the weather improves this spring (or at least we can hope), it may be time for many of us to visit the former lake beds at the two dams. We can walk out onto the deltas and see the new vegetation starting to grow. Lake Aldwell’s delta can be reached from the old boat launch. For Lake Mills, take Whiskey Bend Road, which has been reopened, and you will come to Humes Ranch trailhead with access from there.

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Research divers to watch arrival of Elwha sediments

In a report last night on KING-5 News, Gary Chittim offered a visually rich account of the studies taking place at the mouth of the Elwha River, where nearshore and delta areas are expected to receive huge loads of sediment after the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams come out.

He noted that divers from The U.S. Geological Survey and Environmental Protection Agency have been fighting strong currents as they conduct a spacial survey of the plants and animals in the nearshore area.

Gary quoted Sean Sheldrake, dive unit officer for the EPA:

“Just yesterday, we were diving on a beautiful kelp forest with a variety of fish and plant life, and the hope is through this reconnection of the Elwha to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it will not only continue but thrive.”

And in a news release last week from the U.S. Geological Survey, Sheldrake was quoted as saying:

“Until now, we’ve focused most of our attention on the effect this project will have on the river, salmon habitat and salmon recovery. But with this survey, we will have a more complete and much clearer picture of the effects on the nearshore ocean environment.”

More than 19 million cubic meters of sediment — enough to fill 11 football fields the height of the Empire State Building — has accumulated behind the Elwha River dams, according to the news release. That sediment is expected to create turbidity for a time, but in the long run could be beneficial for a variety of plant and animal species in area.

Documents for further reading:

Proceedings of the 2011 Elwha Nearshore Consortium Meeting (PDF 1.3 mb)

Nearshore function of the central Strait of Juan de Fuca for juvenile fish… Executive Summary (PDF 906 kb)

Elwha Nearshore Update, Summer 2011 (PDF 333 kb)

Nearshore substrate and morphology offshore of the Elwha River (PDF 4.5 mb)

Nearshore restoration of the Elwha River through removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams (PDF 308 kb)

Bull trout in Elwha River given temporary refuge

As demolition time draws near for the two Elwha River dams, 82 bull trout were recently captured in the middle portion of the river and moved upstream out of harm’s way.

Bull Trout / Photo: Olympic National Park

Scientists used their skills with hook-and-line fishing as well as the more direct electroshock treatment to take adults and juveniles from waters in and around Lake Mills at the upper Glines Canyon Dam, as well as from the section of the river between the two dams.

The bull trout averaged 14 inches long, and some were as big as 24 inches.

The fish were held in net pens in Lake Mills for up to 10 days. They were measured and sampled for genetic characteristics. Radio transmitters were implanted in 31 fish to track their movements. Then they were transported by helicopter to two locations upstream, one near Elkhorn Ranger Station and the other at the mouth of Hayes River.

The protective action is considered important, because removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams is likely to dislodge an estimated 24 million cubic yards of sediment that has collected behind the dams since they were built, according to estimates by the Bureau of Reclamation. Most of that sediment will come from a delta at the south end of Lake Mills. Bull trout caught in the sediment-laden river probably will not do well, researchers say.

“Using the best available science, we’ve taken steps to protect the bull trout population and given them immediate access to high-quality, pristine habitats in the upper river through this relocation project,” said Sam Brenkman, fisheries biologist for Olympic National Park.

According to the “Bull Trout Protection and Restoration Plan” (PDF 1.6 mb), turbidity will exceed 1,000 parts per million for extended periods and may periodically exceed 10,000 ppm.

Even at 50 to 100 ppm, bull trout may stop feeding, suffer from gill abrasion and experience stress that can reduce their fitness. Greater levels of turbidity can lead to reduced health and possible death.

Bull trout were moved by helicopter to the upper Elwha River. / Photo: Olympic National Park

It was assumed for planning purposes that fish remaining in the river would die. That’s why a priority was placed on maintaining access to high-quality areas upstream as well as tributaries and off-channel areas that can serve as refugia from the murky waters.

In addition, the demolition schedule includes “fish windows” when construction will cease and the river will clear up to a safer level, allowing for salmon and trout to migrate and spawn. These fish windows are scheduled for November-December to aid coho and chum migration into the Elwha; May-June for hatchery out-migration and steelhead in-migration; and Aug. 1-Sept. 14 for chinook and pink salmon in-migration.

Bull trout were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. Over the past five years, fisheries biologists have surveyed the river to find out where the fish hang out, tracked them with radio telemetry and conducted genetic studies to understand their population dynamics.

Based on this work, researchers estimate the adult bull trout population at less than 400 fish, less than 3 percent of the entire Elwha River fish community. Between 60 and 69 percent are found downstream of Rica Canyon, which lies just above Lake Mills.

Moving the fish upstream will allow them to find the most suitable habitat following dam removal. A unique characteristic of bull trout is that some individuals in a given population may migrate to the ocean, while others stay in freshwater their entire lives. Some may move into tributaries or lakes, while others prefer the main river.

Biologists believe bull trout once occupied the entire Elwha River system before the first dam was built in 1910. Following dam removal, the landlocked population above the dams will be able to move all the way downstream. The anadromous population that can’t get above the Elwha Dam will be able to utilize the entire watershed.

The relocation effort fulfills a requirement of a 2000 revision to the 1996 biological opinion for bull trout by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We are pleased that we met our objectives,” said Pat Crain, fisheries biologist for Olympic National Park. “And this project, designed to protect a threatened species, would not have been possible without close collaboration among the various agencies.

“During two weeks of field work, more than 20 biologists — from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Student Conservation Association — assisted with and monitored the capture and relocation effort.”

The relocation work was completed June 17.

Other projects that should help bull trout include a culvert replacement on Griff Creek, a middle tributary of the Elwha, and an evaluation of the competition that occurs with nonnative brook trout.

If you’d like to read more about the Elwha Dam removal, check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun Sept. 4, 2010, or visit Olympic National Park’s “Bull Trout” page.

The tagging of captured bull trout took place on Lake Mills. / NPS photo by John Gussman

Habitat-funding formula is sacred among supporters

Like a dark cloud, a fear of politics hangs over a program that allocates state money for projects that protect fish and wildlife habitat, build parks and trails and preserve farmland. Check out my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun, which relates methods of funding to a Bainbridge Island trails project.

A bit of history is needed to understand the controversy. In 1989, two prominent politicians, Republican Dan Evans and Democrat Mike Lowry, joined forces to create the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. The idea was to attract both government and private money to the best projects of their kind in the state.

The following year, the Legislature created a funding structure called the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. The strength of the program, according to many supporters, is the enduring formula for allocating state dollars, first by category (PDF 12 kb), then by project through detailed evaluation criteria.

Because of the established criteria, the Legislature has avoided fights over whether to fund particular projects. Instead, the Legislature sets the statewide budget for the program, and expert committees score the projects based on established criteria.

On the 20th anniversary of the program in 2009, an editorial in the Seattle Times noted that some people doubted that the political marriage of this “odd couple” — Evans and Lowry — would last for the long run, but so far it has:

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Hanford’s story can be told in different ways

Cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford reservation in Eastern Washington is one of this state’s most critical and vexing environmental problems. The site is so dangerous to the people and environment along the Columbia River that every Washington resident ought to keep an eye on the progress.

“The contaminants out there are so dangerous and so long-lived… We should be absolutely insisting that the federal government clean that site up, whatever the cost,” Jay Manning told me three years ago.

Manning was the director of the Department of Ecology when I interviewed him about the state’s top environmental problems. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 16, 2008. He has since become the governor’s chief of staff. See Water Ways, Oct. 5, 2009.

Since then, the federal government has poured billions into the project, including a significant boost of dollars with the economic stimulus package. Now that effort is being pared back, with a significant loss of jobs, as Annette Cary reports in the Tri-City Herald.

Converting huge amounts of nuclear waste into a safer form is a difficult technological and logistical problem, as reporter Craig Welch points out in a pair Seattle Times stories published Jan. 22 and Jan. 23.

These stories bring you into the meat of the problem. But I have to say that I was equally impressed by a short piece I heard last night on KUOW radio. Reporter Anna King helps us understand the nature of problem from the perspective of people who have made a career out of cleaning up Hanford’s waste. These grizzled employees have learned from years of experience, and are now about to turn over their projects to a new generation. The newcomers will learn to navigate the minefields of nuclear risk — but they, too, may be retired before the job is done. Quoting from her piece:
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Amusing Monday: python versus alligator

Here’s another battle between species. In November on Water Ways, I repeated a “dramatic” video showing a life-or-death fight between a shark and an octopus. The video was filmed at the Seattle Aquarium and was produced by National Geographic.

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

This time, the fight (actually a double billing) is between an alligator and a python in the Florida Everglades, where Burmese pythons are not native but have grown to incredible numbers in recent years. So which animal is the king of the swamp? Left to their own battles, will the alligator survive or will the python become the dominant predator?

This video, taken from a Nature program last year on PBS, shows that individual battles between an alligator and a python depend on the size of the individuals.

The program describes research in which pythons have been found to eat a wide variety of mammals, birds and reptiles. Because the invasive pythons could wipe out endangered species, a serious effort is under way to keep them out of the Florida Keys, where they have not yet established a comfortable home. The invasion is a serious, but interesting, challenge. I can recommend the entire 50-minute episode if you have not seen it.